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The 4 Lies I Believed About Productivity

'Nobody’s taught me how to work. I don’t believe anyone’s taught us how to work.'

Disclaimer: Is there anyway I can convince you to stop reading this? What if you just dove into that thing you need to do? Below you’ll find some permission and science, but the biggest lie of all is that you can learn productivity from an article. Only you can change the way you work and you already have everything you need. Not sold yet? Come on in…

As an artist and entrepreneur, my livelihood depends on my ability to cross the finish line. I’ve created movies, experiences, and businesses…often simultaneously. As such, I’ve come to see myself as “Productive.”

So imagine how humbling it was to learn that I’m about as productive as a neanderthal.

Nobody’s taught me how to work. I don’t believe anyone’s taught us how to work. I’ve cobbled together techniques to hit deadlines, but at the expense of work-life balance, momentum, and it turns outs, a ton of efficiency. I’ve never questioned the hacky methods to my madness because I believed I had it under control. In fact, I believed a lot of things that turned out to be lies.

A year ago, my schedule became an unmanageable tangle. In an effort to get a big hunk of something done, I took a “CAVEDAY.” I shut everything off and worked on one thing for the whole day. It was amazing and a little lonely. With two collaborators, I turned CAVEDAY into a group experience where people surrender their phones and support each other in working without distraction. In city after city, we see people getting more done in a day than they thought possible. From collecting data and talking to participants, patterns have emerged. Below are the most common lies that get in the way of our productivity:

Lie #1: “To get more done, I need more time.”

Truth: “To get more done, I need better time.”

Freeing up time is helpful, but changing your relationship to work means understanding you can do better work in LESS time. In the same way fitness research allows us to squeeze better results out of a shorter workout, the science of productivity can help us unlock more work efficiency. Or what we call “Cave Time.”

Cave Time is a distraction-free zone where you get to play offense, do your best work and set yourself up to hit flow. We’ve learned the optimal components are:

A) Phones Away, Notifications Off

It’s no secret that our phones affect our work, but a study published in the University of Chicago Press found that having your phone in sight–even when turned off–can impact your cognitive abilities. Creating a cave-like environment means shutting out everything that may steal your attention, including pesky in-computer notifications.

B) Mono-Task

A University of California at Irvine study found that the average person takes 23.25 minutes to recover after switching tasks. Researcher Sophie Leroy calls this “attention residue.” If you’re unconsciously bobbing between tabs throughout your day, this gunk could be stealing several hours of productivity. Cave Time means one-task-at a time for a specific period of time. Not switching when you’re bored or stuck, but when you’ve hit a goal or a time horizon you’ve previously determined.

C) Do the Hard Thing Early

A study by Priceonomics analyzed millions of workers’ data and found that 11AM was the most productive time of the day, followed by a slow and steady cognitive decline. While your biorhythms may vary, Cave Time requires working on the hard thing when you’re the most awake. Doing this early also leads to what our cave-dwellers report as a “Worker’s High;” a rush of momentum they can ride through the day.

D) Sprints, Breaks, & Hydration every 52 minutes

Our awesome brains can only concentrate on one thing for so long. Depending on who you ask, it’s as little as 25 minutes or as long as 52 minutes. Although you may want to keep working, your body can’t maintain a peak state if you don’t take breaks to breathe, stretch and drink water. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that even 2% dehydration can decrease cognitive performance. In the cave, we set up our day ahead of time into sprints and breaks. Experiment between 25 and 52 minutes to find the perfect length for you. It may vary throughout the day.

Slowly but surely, I’ve re-trained myself to do better work. You can too. It requires preparation, intentionality, and practice. But there’s more to un-learn…

Lie #2: “My emotions don’t affect my productivity”

Truth: “I carry my baggage into whatever I do”

Everyone has work that comes easily to them. And then there’s the stuff we avoid. Without going full-on Tony Robbins, if you’re feeling resistance to a task, there’s something underneath the surface. It could be a fear of being alone, losing status, a feeling of superiority, a fear of rejection or even a fear of success. Your task is to figure out what it is and take away its power.

I struggle to write because I’m afraid of encountering that I’m not as smart or as talented as I think I am (Embarrassingly, this article has taken more than four months to get across the finish line.) It clashes with my sense of self to sit in the muck of mediocre. It gives that inner perpetrator just the kind of evidence it needs to say “See, you don’t know what you’re doing.” I counteract this feeling by encouraging the crap outta myself. I’ve got sticky notes all over my laptop with messages like “The First Draft Always Sucks” (Which we’ve since turned into posters.) When I allow myself to be vulnerable, I can improve my productivity by putting myself in optimal environments. For me that’s accountability groups and cavedays. All of my resistance melts away when I surround myself with other people fighting the good fight.

Lie #3: “Successful people can handle their focus”

Truth: “The greats embrace their limitations”

We are living in the Age of Distraction. Our phones and feeds were not designed with our best interests in mind. Social Media has been found to release Oxytocin, the love chemical. When left to our own devices, we… well, use our devices. Believing that I could handle my focus kept me where I was; burnt out, unsatisfied and inefficient. I thought getting external help was a sign of weakness.

But across disciplines you’ll find stories of high-achievers acknowledging their limitations and taking drastic–almost religious–measures to raise the stakes on their work. Christopher Nolan doesn’t use a cellphone. Tim Ferriss checks his email twice a day. Oprah practices “radical focus,” only giving her attention to one thing at a time.

An inability to manage your focus only becomes a weakness when you’re not willing to admit it to yourself.

I’m a big fan technology blockers like Inbox Pause, Freedom, or RescueTime. I find great power in the taking the decision off the table. My lizard brain cannot be trusted.

Lie #4: “My life isn’t compatible with deep focus”

Truth: “There is a way if I care to find it.

“Going to work” used to be an activity that meant you were unavailable. But in our tech-topia, it’s easy to spend your whole day serving other people.

Our emails, slacks, texts and pings keep us company and prevent us from making our best, most challenging, most meaningful contributions. At companies, a culture of “shallow work” can become the unspoken law of the land.

Nobody’s going to give you Cave Time, you must fight to create it. And it involves something a little scary: letting other people down. But only a little. Most things can wait longer than you think. Here are some recommendations for different environments:

If you have a few VIPs

Set up an autoresponder or an IFTTT reminder to call you if you get a specific email. Here’s an recipe for Gmail.

If you’re a Freelancer

Don’t even log into email & social until you’ve finished a few sprints. This is part of my daily routine and has yet to cost me any relationships.

Find other freelancers and hold each other accountable to a block of Cave Time.

If you’re in a Distracting Workplace

Get group buy-in for a recurring block of Cave Time. Alternate covering for each other so everyone can truly sink in.

Open floor plans were not designed for your deep work. Take a remote day in a cave-like space like a library or a Breather.

If you’re in Client Services

Bless your heart! If you can’t get someone to cover you, Cave Time may have to come before or after the work day.

The outside world and your inside needs are conspiring against your focus. Fighting back takes intentionality, support, and firm boundaries. The world needs your best work, and I’d wager, so do you.

Start with an hour a day of Cave Time. Build from there. Just start. With whatever time you’ve got. Right now. Stop reading articles. The truth is only you can change the way you work and you already have everything you need.

Jeremy Redleaf is a filmmaker and co-founder of CAVEDAY, a company that facilitates deep work events, consults with companies and creates products in service of redefining our relationship with work. 

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